Connection Error by Francesca Burke

image of a vial and some plants, with the words 'Connection Error Francesca Burke'

Ines’ magic specialises in helping people communicate. Getting them to listen, on the other hand…

A few of weeks ago you guys voted for ‘poison’ to be my next topic, so here it is!

(An aside which none of you give a shit about: I nicked [character spoiler] from the Philosophy Tube YouTube channel, and the last PT vid, which came out as I was editing, took [different character spoiler, and also a bit of the first one] and absolutely ran with the concept. This happened last year with Lauv’s song Modern Loneliness, when I wrote about people dying of isolation 2 weeks before lockdown happened. I can’t even remember if I’d heard the song Modern Loneliness before I started writing the story Modern Loneliness? (I know I’d definitely heard it before I finished, ha.) Not sure if this means I’m a genius or if a lot of humans are on the same wavelength. If it happens a third time I’ll write a blog post about it instead of inserting giant parenthesis on posts here. Enjoy this one, though, I really liked writing it.)

Connection Error

  Ines hadn’t been too sure about relocating from the country to a busy town. It felt somewhat counterproductive from a branding perspective, and very counterproductive from a mental health perspective. Witchy, magicky women are supposed to live in cottages in the woods, enjoying first name terms with local mammals. Quiet, anxious women are supposed to prefer solitude and slow living to parking charges and traffic jams. Yet into the town Ines came, armed with a crate of houseplants, some saucepans and a set of watercolour paints. Her computer came too, of course, and with it several irate messages from readers who took the relocation of the ‘Ines’ Adventures in Paganism’ blog from rural idyl to urban smoke as a personal betrayal.

  It seemed to be turning out all right so far, though. She’d only been living in her flat for a few months—long enough to have introduced herself to her neighbours and learnt the bus route—but she had already grown her clientele by a third. She shouldn’t have been surprised. Ines’ speciality was communication, and she could have only found somewhere louder if she had moved into the capital. So far most of her clients came for tinctures to help them through a school presentation, or to take the edge off their first day teaching a class. She had several regulars who worked in something called ‘corporate training.’ She wasn’t sure what that was, but they tipped well. Even her blog was outperforming expectations: so many more people lived in concrete forests than natural ones that she had a captive audience for any post about connecting with nature or finding beauty within busy lives. Her move was, she decided when she counted each day’s takings and made provisions for the tax season, a good career choice. She even liked the people she’d met through her reading group.

  Of course, the most experienced professionals have those days that test their patience, stretch their goodwill and make them wonder why they’re bothering. For Ines, this happened on a Thursday in October. She’d woken up with a headache and knocked over her coffee, which shouldn’t have mattered because it was decaf and she was only drinking it out of habit, but it did matter that her rug was stained to hell and it did matter that she was running late and only just had her hair tied back and some mascara slicked on when the doorbell went and—

  ‘I’m here to see Ines!’

  ‘Hello! It’s so lovely to meet you. Come through.’ Why, why were her eight thirty appointments only early on the days she was late? This one seemed okay, though. Pretty standard, going by the pressed trousers, lightly gelled hair and coloured lanyard proclaiming Mitch, Head of Operations. What, Ines wondered as she sat her visitor on the couch alongside a pitcher of water, did Mitch operate?

  ‘I have a presentation to make to the shareholders,’ Mitch was saying as Ines readied her notebook. ‘My cousin Tracy recommended you—you helped her out when she first started teaching, she says hello—and I thought I’d see if you had anything.’

  ‘You just want to ease your nerves?’

  ‘Yes, well, I think I have everything I want to say, you know, it’s all up here, and I can give the speech to my wife quite easily, it’s just… the thought of that boardroom.’

  ‘I understand. I think I have something already that will work for you.’ Ines stood and opened her supplies cupboard, carefully decorated with dried flowers and bunting to hide the fact that the owners of the flat had bought it from the returned goods section of IKEA. ‘Let’s see… this is a tincture to clear the head, calm the nerves and, well, keep your words flowing. Pop a drop—just a drop, any more and you’ll find yourself babbling—into a drink the morning of your presentation. It will kick in within twenty minutes and last about eight hours. Do not take it more than three times in a seven-day week.’

  ‘There are side effects?’

  ‘A slight touch of over confidence. It doesn’t last in the long run.’

  ‘I’ll take it.’ Mitch pressed a twenty-pound note into Ines’s hand as soon as she had wrapped the tiny vial into a box next to its instruction leaflet.

  Technically, this tincture was priced at twenty-two pounds, but cash was cash and besides, she had a feeling she would be seeing Mitch’s wife’s sister’s half siblings’ cat before long.

  Ines felt a bit more human by the time the next client arrived, and the one after that. They were easy jobs: one salve for the wrists and throat (it worked like a solid perfume to make listening to one’s idiotic colleagues a bit easier). One order for a personalised balm for a small child with a stutter.

  ‘You know I can’t fix the impediment,’ Ines warned the child’s father. ‘This will just help your son to relax.’ There was a pause in which Ines mentally ran through her ‘speech impediments are not necessarily a problem and perhaps we all need to calm down about conforming to societal standards’ monologue. She’d had to use variations of it on two other clients recently, one of whom wanted their daughter to ‘develop faster’ so she could excel in her Mandarin class. The child was two.

  ‘Oh, of course not. We don’t mind Joshy’s stutter. But we know how anxious he’s become about going to school, and anything that can give him a bit of a confidence boost, you know…’ Satisfied, Ines wrote the man a receipt and included some charm bags to help the child sleep.

  The next customer was a young woman somewhere in her late twenties or early thirties. She wore the sort of outfit Ines had always liked the idea of but never been able to pull off: pearl-encrusted hair slides, a cream cardigan with a Peter Pan collar and very shiny brogues.

  ‘Kim Morales,’ she said when Ines opened the front door. ‘I have a two o’clock?’

  ‘I’m guessing you aren’t here for advice on speaking to people one on one,’ Ines said as they sat down. ‘That was quite the handshake.’

  Kim smiled. ‘Thank you. No, it’s not a work matter. It’s my mother. My parents. Mostly my mother.’

  ‘Go on.’

  ‘She’s always had a very specific idea of what she’d like my life to look like. Degree, good job, marriage, children.’

  Ines made a note as Kim sipped water.

  ‘I want those things too. Just… not in that order, necessarily, or not right now. I have the degree—well, I have a PhD, actually—and a really good job. But I’m happy where I am. And I don’t think my idea of marriage is quite what my mum’s is. But she’s always asking if I’m using this app or going to that event and it’s getting to the point where I avoid her phone calls because I can’t face another conversation where I don’t say very much.’

  Ines nodded. She, too, had a mother. ‘How can I help?’

  ‘I want to be able to tell her that I need her to relax with the questioning and the prodding. And I need to make sure that she’s in the right mood to listen. She isn’t always. She’s usually got a charity thing she’s working on, or a neighbour who needs driving to an appointment, and it’s just so hard to get her on her own and in a receptive mood… I’m afraid that if we didn’t have a proper conversation soon, I’ll snap and say it the wrong way. And I don’t want that. We have a good relationship when she’s not—not nagging me about things that aren’t her business.’

  ‘What does your dad think?’

  ‘He mostly hides in the shed.’

  ‘Okay.’ Ines frowned. ‘You want to make sure you’re all in the right head space for this conversation?’

  ‘Yes, please, if that’s possible.’

  Ines mentally ran through her supply list. ‘It should be. It will likely be an infusion that can be digested, or something inhalable, like a perfume.’

  ‘You can do that?’

  ‘I can try. It might take some experimenting, though. I’d rather give you one item that works on all of you, to save you faffing about and trying to get your mum to rub oil on her wrists at the same time you’re spritzing yourself with fragrance. Also, if I keep it non-specific, you can keep the concoction for any future issues with other people as well.’

  Kim smiled widely. ‘Thank you so much.’

  An hour later, Ines assumed that Kim would be her last ‘big’ client for the day, if not the week. She had a good feeling about the recipe she’d drafted for Kim and her parents: getting the quantities right for both parties to sit, listen and articulate themselves would be difficult, but customised magic was some of Ines’s favourite work. Freedom of speech, she liked to say on her blog, was the name of the game, but that it didn’t really work unless it was accompanied by its less glamourous cousin: a desire to listen.

  No wonder Ines’ Adventures in Paganism was doing well. Townies loved aphorisms. 

  The doorbell rang. Her four o’clock, and the last person of the day. ‘Hi, you must be—’

  ‘Bethanie Johnson. I’m here about a personal matter.’

  Ines led her client into the sitting room. Her buckled shoes were very shiny, Ines noticed, and they matched her handbag. ‘Ms—Mrs—Johnson. How can I help you?’

  ‘I need you to stop poisoning my son.’

  Ines sat up. ‘Excuse me?’

  Mrs Johnson produced a shiny tablet and flipped the screen to Ines. She flicked through a series of Twitter posts, Reddit threads, magazine articles and even photographs of newspaper cuttings. Most seemed to be about court rulings, or stories about public figures.

  ‘What exactly are you showing me?’

  ‘You provided these people with your work.’

  Ines squinted. ‘Some of them, yes.’ She recognised a local councillor, a couple of environmental activists and a housewife running a campaign to change dog breeding laws.

  Mrs Johnson sat back. Ines wondered what she was meant to have inferred from the last five minutes. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t—’

  ‘You helped these people spread their misinformation. This misinformation is harming my teenage son. I am here to ask you to turn off your magic.’

  Ines counted to three, then to five, and then to ten. ‘Ma’am, that’s not… that’s not how it works.’

  ‘I know it’s your doing,’ Mrs Johnson insisted. ‘Feeding the social medias with echo chambers and discussions about gender identity and the legacy of British Empire. I respect that it’s not all you,’ she added after a moment. ‘But you’re a part of it. You’re enabling and encouraging this behaviour. One of the ladies at my leisure centre was talking about you.’

   ‘Ah,’ said Ines. She had experience of this sort of customer, but only over the Internet. She was almost thrilled to meet one in the flesh. ‘I think I understand where you’re coming from. Can I offer you a cup of tea, Mrs Johnson?’

  ‘Will it contain your, your work?’

  ‘No ma’am. Just Yorkshire Tea.’

  ‘Well, okay then.’

  As Ines put the kettle on, something prickled at her memory. She flicked through her diary for the previous month. Yes, there. Katie Johnson, 4pm, Tuesday 8th September, no mention of the reason for the appointment. Ines frowned. The teen who was nervous about a university interview? The young woman who wanted to tell her hairdresser she hated how he did her colours?

  ‘Tell me more about your son,’ Ines said when she’d placed the tea tray between her and Mrs Johnson (she’d learnt long ago to never presume tea preferences).

  ‘He spends all his time on the Internet.’ Mrs Johnson added two sugars to her teacup. ‘I suppose that’s not that unusual, my other son does too. But he’s just obsessed with this video essay and that Guardian article and it’s all he ever talks about. Refugees in Greece, concentration camps in China, something about Chechnya, and I can’t even point to that on a map…’

  ‘It sounds like you have a very engaged, conscientious child.’

  ‘I suppose. He is very intelligent. But I don’t know what he’s looking at, or where it’s coming from. At least my other son reads the same paper I do. The Mail,’ she added when Ines raised an eyebrow.

  ‘Ah, but do you know who’s writing in that? Do you know who owns it?’

  ‘I hadn’t thought about it. It’s just a newspaper, isn’t it? It’s not the same as an anonymous Facebook post or a YouTube video by some transgender leftist.’

  Ines made a mental note to Google ‘transgender leftists’ when she had a minute. ‘Is it not the same? Who is the journalist? What is their track record? Who do they follow on their social media? Where do they give after dinner speeches? Do they have shares in the companies they’re discussing? Those questions, ma’am, are crucial regardless of the medium.’

  Mrs Johnson reached up to her hair, an iron-grey bun fastened with clips, and smoothed a non-existent flyaway. ‘Well. I don’t think it is appropriate for teenagers to have access to material that could potentially damage them. And this isn’t even about pornography—although don’t get me started on that—it’s about lies and misinformation and the state and private companies hiding their true political intentions behind memes…and it’s all just ridiculous that no one is doing anything to censor the media when there are so many harmful falsehoods floating around. They’re more interested in giving flats to asylum seekers or talking about how many children Boris has, which is not relevant to how he does his job…’

  Ines hid a grimace behind her teacup. Her headache was back, pressing at her temples.

  ‘My advice, ma’am, is to treat every news items as you would on April Fool’s Day. Assume someone is lying, pushing an agenda or having you on for a laugh. Google every story that piques your interest and read the same coverage in three different news outlets. Then you’ll get an approximation of the truth. I recommend that to my clients whether they choose to get their news from Reuters or the bloke in the post office.’

  ‘That won’t help me talk to him, though. Or him talk to me. He’s always inside that room, tapping away on Messenger to his friends. I’m barely a consideration.’ Ah. Finally. The real reason Mrs Johnson trekked up three flights of stairs to Ines’s door on an already-dark afternoon to drink tea with the local witch.

  ‘I can help with that,’ said Ines. She rose and returned to her cupboard, digging out a tiny brown glass vial. ‘Try this infusion. A drop for both of you, in your tea or over food. It makes it easier to articulate yourself.’ Ines paused, weighing up the pros and cons of speaking freely. ‘I recommend this recipe in particular because it’s the strongest I have. It helps you put your cards on the table. If one member of the conversation has been harbouring something they’d like to say, they can express themselves with a degree of calm and clarity. And the other members of the conversation will find themselves less likely to overreact than they might otherwise. If you’re concerned for someone’s wellbeing and want to know why and how they’re thinking what they’re thinking, this will help you to convey your concern. And they’ll be able to explain their thoughts back to you. Understanding is the name of the game with this one.’

  ‘So it can force people to say what they’re thinking?’ Despite her previous derision, Mrs Johnson was looking at the little bottle with a distinctly hungry air.

  ‘Absolutely not. Nothing I make will do that. I do not deal in truth spells or suchlike. I do not believe you should force someone to say anything before they’re ready. And besides—’ Ines’ voice grew sharp. ‘This works both ways. You could let something slip at the wrong time too. This merely helps put all parties in the right mood for a conversation. The contents of that conversation are down to the individuals—this won’t force anyone to say anything they aren’t ready to share yet. So if you use it on your husband to get him to open up about his mistress but if that’s not a conversation he’s willing to have, all it will do is help him lie more eloquently.’

  Mrs Johnson flattered another non-existent strand of hair. Ines wondered if she’d over-explained and given Mrs Johnson false expectations. ‘Well. I suppose it might help us all sit around the table together. We haven’t done that since Elijah and I separated.’ She stopped, as though she’d let something slip. Then, suddenly: ‘I thought your schtick was free speech?’

   ‘It is. My interest, and my area of expertise, is language and communication. What are the goals of those things? Understanding. Comprehension. Respect for someone you disagree with. But no one would buy ‘understanding’. We’re all too busy enjoying being angry and righteous, are we not?’

  ‘I—I suppose.’ There was a silence. Many years working in retail had taught Ines not to fill it. ‘All right. I’ll try it. But if it doesn’t work… can I come back for something stronger?’

  ‘This one is fairly potent, but I do custom work where necessary. I highly recommend bringing your child along too. Or the whole family.’ Ines took another gamble. ‘If you’d just like to reconnect with both your children, ma’am, I’m sure we can work on something together.’

   Mrs Johnson stood up and gathered her things. ‘Well, all right. How much do I owe you?’

  ‘The infusion is fifteen pounds.’

  Mrs Johnson tucked a twenty under her teacup. ‘For the tea, too.’

 ‘Thank you very much, Mrs Johnson, I appreciate that. I wish you and your family all the best.’

  When the door had closed, Ines tidied away her work things, switched the oven on and poured a large glass of Scotch. She flipped back through her diary, marking off notes and annotating appointments. She felt like her day had been a pick ‘n’ mix bag. It was always the things you least expected that you most needed, as her mother would say. She wasn’t sure Mrs Johnson would see it that way when she was done with whichever of her daughters had come to see Ines, but Ines had an inkling that she would be seeing the whole Johnson clan over the next few months. Sometimes, she reflected, you didn’t need the local neighbourhood witch as much as you needed someone else in the room to facilitate the conversation. She should use that line in a blog post. She should write a post about the tabloid press as a news medium versus social media as a news medium. What had she told Mrs Johnson? Something about journalists owning shares. As Ines yawned widely and began poking around in the fridge, her phone rang.

  ‘Hello mama. How are you? Oh, not too bad, just having a Scotch while I sort out dinner. Mother, I am twenty-eight. It’s six o’clock! Tell me you don’t have a wine open. Oh, a prosecco, that’s so much better…’

Thank you for reading! Please consider sharing this with anyone who might like it.

Did you know you can read my short stories before they’re public, plus exclusive stories, by joining the No. 1 Readers’ Club on Patreon? When you join, I’ll name a character after you (my newest member Natalie is in this story!). Alternately, you can support my work by buying me a coffee as a one-off.

Learn about where you can get my book, The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes here.

Copyright © 2021 by Francesca Burke

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

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